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Friday, July 30, 2021

Commentary: The hyper-competitive nature of TikTok characterizes a generation

I’m a savage! Classy, bougie, ratchet! Sassy, moody, nasty!

Five hundred million people use the short-video sharing app TikTok. The app utilized an algorithm that closely tracks your video likes and interactions to curate your app experience, making it unlike any other social media app. The user statistics prove it; the app captivates the younger Generation Z, as well as straggling millennials who are attempting to keep up with the trend. Sure, the same concept of short-video sharing seems to mirror the late Vine (rest in peace to my high school comedy), but TikTok distinguishes itself by its app design and, more significantly, by the generation it targets. The idea that TikTok is simply a new version of Vine fails to acknowledge just how embedded technology is in the lives of the younger sector of Gen Z and how it silently reflects the pressures and characteristics of modern teenage life. The TikTok user experience unfortunately demands competition within the Gen Z generation, especially its younger cohort.

Gen Z includes people born in the mid-1990s to early 2010. People often cite this generation as the technology-age generation, keen on social media. I find it useful, however, to further divide this generation in two. I’m not an expert on generational distinctions, but I think there is a clear, yet subtle, divide between those who learned to use technology at a younger age versus those who have always lived in a technology-filled reality. 

Although I — born in 1997— received my first flip phone at age 10 for safety reasons, I would assume those born in the early-to-mid 2000s (with some sort of economic privilege) grew up with an early version of an iPhone or iPad in their hands. Children with more advanced technology entrenched in their lives at an earlier age would inherently produce a generation that uses technology in its many forms in a significant way. They grew up in an era of fast technological growth and keeping up with such has become second nature to the late Gen Z.

The difference between early and late Gen Z is delicate. Both have the same technological capabilities and similarly high amount of usage compared to earlier generations. But early Gen Z, I believe, has more of a capability to step away from technology when we need to or want to because we lived a short span of our lives without a smartphone or an advanced computer. We have a conception of life without technology, but the late Gen Z cannot say the same. Their presence on social media is more of an extension of themselves, another limb, an online brand that demands upkeep. Early Gen Z can choose to use technology as a tool for expression; late Gen Z feels a much stronger external social force to express themselves in such a format. 

On a macro-level, an attention economy grew simultaneously with technological growth. I borrow this idea of an attention economy from Jenny Odell’s book “How To Do Nothing.” This is an ironic yet captivating book of nonfiction for shelter in place, I must add. 

To Odell, the internet in general is not to blame. 

“It is the invasive logic of commercial social media, and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction,” Odell writes.

Social media, central to a caricature of our technological age and the attention economy, relies on a business model in which users must engage with the products through some version of likes. These likes are, for the most part, passive, disingenuous and abuse “our attention and leaves us no time to think.” Our time and attention have thus become profitable and exploitable, and TikTok is no exception. Apps are meticulously designed to capture and maintain our attention (Why do you think TikTok doesn’t display the time at the top of the screen? The programmers are purposely trying to keep you there for hours). TikTok is the newest, and arguably most successful, social media company that functions in the attention economy. It was natural for Gen Z, especially late Gen Z, to attach itself to such an application.

It may seem eerie to those who have not grown up in Gen Z to witness how captured a generation is on a single application. Similar to Odell’s argument, it would be shortsighted and surface level to criticize TikTok on such a general level. The “internet is bad!” argument holds little merit. The true detriment lies in how it plays into the real lives of its users. I expand upon Odell’s analysis in relation to TikTok in her mention of the envy that is stimulated by the attention economy.

Envy stems from a feeling of competition — a competition for likes and views is how almost every social media product of the attention economy sustains itself. The app garners the user’s attention and directs it to others and their online personas. The app produces a quantitative statistic in the form of likes to give a clear indication of the content’s likability and popularity compared to others. It’s cyclical. TikTok and the customs expected when using the application, however, have taken this competition to an extreme. TikTok has become a breeding ground for competition among the late Gen Z. 

Most of the content one sees on TikTok is a variation of a larger trend. Dance choreography like “Savage” or “Renegade,” various hashtag challenges and more have a standardized foundation. The expectation is that each user will add their own spin to the trend, making it their own. Of course, there is original content or hilarious moments serendipitously caught on film that illustrate the highly creative characteristics of Gen Z teenagers, however, there is a clear emphasis and influx of the user-friendly trends. 

The only way to distinguish yourself is to simply be better: be more creative, be more innovative, be more attractive, be more sexual, be more funny, be more captivating than the other 500 million users. Though this type of trend variation is evident in other social media forms (afterall, it is the basis of meme culture), it’s the principle nature of the competition that is unique to TikTok. 

There is also evidence of Gen Z TikTok users that relay much of their personal lives on the application. It’s not uncommon to watch content related to teenage sexual encounters and desires, as well as struggles with depression and anxiety. One’s real life, and often jokes concerning it, feed into the competition. Who can express their clinical mental health or existential angst more comically or “sincerely”? Even videos of users showing off their aesthetic bedroom or simply posing and lip-syncing are highly performative. Creativity, expression and physical attractiveness fuel the race for likes. 

Ultimately, there are a number of likes associated with the content production and that statistic is not easy to neglect (as much as one could claim they don’t care). And indeed, the scale of TikTok emphasizes and creates the competition. The competition is heightened by the millions. 

The true consequences of such social media use are discovered when the generational analysis is combined with the cultural expectations of TikTok usage. Late Gen Z teens’ deeply personal online brand and TikTok’s unprecedented level of competition pose, what I anticipate, a detrimental emotional consequence to the generation. There is a translucent line between a late Gen Z user’s real life and their online identity. Losing in the competition is not a blow to an ego, it’s a blow to one’s identity. Winning the competition anticipates the brand will be maintained to a tee. The pressure is on.  

This is not to say that similarities between TikTok and other forms of social media do exist. This is also not to say that each generation, not only the younger cohort of Gen Z, have been impacted or interact with TikTok in some way. Not every person in Gen Z will interact with TikTok in the same way and for the same purpose. But this is to say an understanding of new waves and trends in social media and technology have implications on larger bodies of people — how we characterize a generation. By reflecting on the macro-level social impact of one element of social media and technology, we can possibly garner a greater understanding of how we got here and where we are going.

Written by: Caroline Rutten — arts@theaggie.org

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